Lock up the war chest for fairer elections

Reform of electoral funding could remove the temptations of big-dollar elections and provide a pathway to refreshed democratic processes and candidates who genuinely engage with their constituents.

It seems every pet shop parrot has been squawking about electoral reform since a motley collection of micro and minor party candidates audaciously gamed the Senate preference system in 2013 to ensure at least one of them was elected.

Ricky Muir prevailed with his Australian Motoring Enthusiast’s Party attracting 0.51 per cent of the primary vote, while Family First’s Bob Day was elected with 3.76 per cent.

Since then the major parties, some minors and even independents have been calling for the system to be changed so that Senate candidates can no longer be elected with such a small proportion of the vote.

But these proposals are about to become overwhelmed by demands for a different kind of electoral reform. The manner by which political parties raise – and by implication, spend – their funds, has become a much more pressing political problem.

Most adages were coined for good reason, and the one about exercising caution before launching a political inquiry continues to hold weight. Perhaps the then NSW Premier Nick Greiner truly believed the Liberal Party had its own house in order when he established the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988. Or the thought of exposing Labor’s underbelly was simply more tempting than any perceived risk to the Liberals.

Yet it didn’t take too long for Greiner to learn that justice is blind, even to its progenitors, and now his political descendants are facing the counter-swing of the ICAC pendulum.

The lure of grubby money also appears to defy the boundaries that ostensibly separate Labor from Liberal.

Money is the lifeblood that keeps politics flourishing. Without cash, even the most prospective candidate is unable to compete with those who can afford to print letterbox flyers and posters, set up phone banks, and run advertisements on radio, TV and online. It’s no surprise then that potential political dominance is measured by the girth of one’s campaign war chest.

ICAC has revealed it’s not necessarily the money itself that is corrupting, but the means by which it is acquired. The Royal Commission into union corruption is anticipated to produce a similar result.

As the cost of running campaigns has skyrocketed over successive elections, individual MPs and political parties have become increasingly dependent on the benevolence of big corporates and unions. Such reliance is only a small step away from being beholden to political donors, and corruption is merely another small step from there.

ICAC has laid this bare, and the parties that have been deeply embarrassed, not to mention politically nobbled, by the exposure of venality in their ranks are now belatedly proffering a cacophony of solutions.

On the weekend Liberal Party doyen, Michael Kroger, called for all of parties’ campaign costs to be met with public funding, or at the very least for individual donations to be capped at $1000. Candidates already receive an indexed amount ($2.49 at the 2013 federal election) from the government for every vote received, as long as they obtain at least 4 per cent of first preferences.

This is a sub-optimal solution for democracy as it disadvantages any new entrants to the political circus. They must find the funds to run a campaign and meet the minimum threshold of votes before getting access to any public funds.

Limiting donations as well as campaign expenditure would force parties to be creative in finding inexpensive ways of getting their message to voters.

The Coalition’s Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, has alternatively suggested that all political donations from corporates and unions be banned, leaving only those from individuals. Even if such a proposal survived a likely constitutional challenge from the unions, it wouldn’t prevent wealthy individualsfrom bestowing largesse on their party of choice unless a $1000 cap such as that suggested by Kroger was imposed.

It wouldn’t stop another self-funded multi-millionaire candidate like Clive Palmer, either.

Labor has only tentatively stepped into the field so far, recommending to the parliamentary inquiry that occurs after each federal election that public funding be increased and reforms made to “remove the distorting influence of vested interests and big money politics”. It’s not yet known whether “big money” includes funding from the unions.

The Liberals’ submission to the post-election inquiry is even less forthcoming, particularly in light of the interventions made by Kroger and Pyne. The party claims to be strongly committed to “appropriate disclosure of significant donations to political parties” but wants the requirement for political donors to declare their contributions to be dropped as it duplicates similar disclosures required of the parties.

Finally, considering they have so much less to spend, the Greens’ proposed reforms for electoral funding unsurprisingly aim to “ban corporation donations, place limits on the amount of money individuals can spend on campaigning, lower the threshold for disclosure of donations, rely more on public money and put an overall cap on parties’ election spending.”

A limit on election spending is clearly in the interests of smaller parties, which cannot afford the advertising blitzes bankrolled by the major parties. It could, however, have a broader benefit, removing the need for parties to source ever-increasing funds that ultimately line the pockets of advertising agencies and the commercial television broadcasting networks.

Limiting donations as well as campaign expenditure would force parties to be creative in finding inexpensive ways of getting their message to voters. This would likely involve more grassroots campaigns such as that deployed by Scott Ludlam in the recent WA Senate election re-run and Cathy McGowan’s successful campaign for Indi.

Before their current inquiries are over, ICAC and the Royal Commission into union corruption will cause a world of pain for the Liberals and Labor. It’s impossible to tell the extent of the upheavals that are yet to come, but there is a strong chance that good could come from the disruption.

Reform of electoral funding is the key. An authentic effort to remove the distractions and temptations of big-dollar elections could provide a pathway to refreshed democratic processes involving grassroots campaigns and candidates who genuinely engage with their constituents.